Here are eight thoughts on the state of the Celtics.
▪ When the Celtics traded Kemba Walker and a first-round pick to the Thunder for Al Horford, it was mostly a move to clear Walker’s massive salary and create future flexibility. But they always valued Horford, too, and the 35-year-old forward is quietly putting together one of the more complete seasons of his career.
He’s averaging 8.4 rebounds, his highest mark since 2013-14, along with a career-high 1.8 blocks despite playing just 29.1 minutes per game. He is shooting a career-best 82.5 percent from the foul line, and the Celtics have a 102.1 defensive rating with Horford on the court, third best on the team.
Also, it’s clear listening to the team’s younger players how much Horford’s steady, veteran leadership is valued.
▪ The apparent regression of second-year players Payton Pritchard and Aaron Nesmith should concern the Celtics. Pritchard was a revelation in the first half of his rookie season, seizing a prominent role while Walker was injured. Nesmith struggled at the start but showed great promise later in the year. The last two months of the season, he averaged about 20 minutes per game, connected on 42.2 percent of his 3-pointers, and made his greatest impact with excellent hustle and defense.
Both players had strong summer league showings and appeared ready to build on that momentum. But their opportunities have been scarce on a deep roster, and when they have received chances, they simply have not delivered.
The Celtics have been outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions with Pritchard on the floor, and 23.1 when Nesmith plays. The sample size is small, but those are ghastly numbers.
Their shooting statistics are similarly cringe-worthy. Nesmith has made 29.8 percent of his shots and 20 percent of his 3-pointers, and Pritchard has connected on 22.7 and 25 percent, respectively.
The Celtics’ greatest weakness is their shooting, and these are two of the players who are skilled enough to provide a boost in that area.
▪ It’s been sort of weird not seeing former president of basketball operations Danny Ainge sitting along the baseline, celebrating big dunks and carping about bad calls. First-year president of basketball operations Brad Stevens prefers to take in the games from a more private location inside the arena, where distractions are minimal and cameras aren’t always lurking.
▪ Speaking of Stevens, if this uneven season continues, it will be interesting to see if he feels any urgency to upgrade the roster as his first trade deadline as an executive approaches in early February.
The Celtics rank 25th in 3-point shooting, and that does seem like the most pressing need. On one hand, Jayson Tatum, Horford, and Marcus Smart have had unusually chilly starts from beyond the arc. They should improve with a larger sample.
But it’s also true that this team simply does not have any real snipers other than Tatum, and it’s obvious that some more reliable shooting would give defenses tougher decisions when trying to guard Tatum and Brown.
Two-way-contract player Sam Hauser has made 46.4 percent of his 3-pointers for the Maine Celtics, for what it’s worth.
Ultimately, though, this team remains several steps from championship contention, so it’s unlikely Stevens would make a significant short-term move that dents future possibilities.
▪ The health of center Robert Williams might become one of the most important story lines. He has dealt with recurring left knee pain, and the Celtics are working to manage the issue, but the impact has been obvious.
The Celtics have a plus-10.7 net rating with Williams on the floor; that number plummets to minus-5.9 when he is not playing. He has been the defensive anchor, as the Celtics allow just 99.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. For comparison’s sake, the Warriors’ 99.9 defensive rating leads the NBA.
Williams is averaging 30.2 minutes per game, and prior to this season had never played more than 18.9. Look for coach Ime Udoka to be a bit more conservative with the big man in the coming months.
▪ Would Tatum be an All-Star if the team were chosen today? It’s not so clear.
On the surface, his 25.2 points and 8.4 rebounds per game would seem to make him a lock. Also, he has made the team two years in a row and is reaching the point where, barring injury, he is among the small group of players who essentially have yearly tickets punched.
But even with his recent uptick, his career-low shooting percentage of 40.6 is the lowest among the NBA’s top 20 scorers. Also, the Celtics are in the lower half of the East.
The guess here is that Tatum ultimately gets in, but at this point it’s certainly no lock.
▪ LaMarcus Aldridge had 17 points and 9 rebounds in the Nets’ rout of the Celtics on Wednesday night. Aldridge and Udoka are extremely close. They played together in Portland for a season, Udoka was an assistant in San Antonio when Aldridge played there, and last year both were with the Nets.
I was told Udoka and Aldridge had a brief discussion last summer about Aldridge possibly joining the Celtics. But Aldridge is seeking a championship, and in addition to the Nets’ being favorites, Udoka told Aldridge it made sense to stick with the team that stood by him when he temporarilyretired last April because of a heart condition.
▪ The Celtics have had a relatively easy schedule so far, and they’re 10-9. They were 11-8 at this point last year, which turned into one of the more forgettable seasons in recent memory.
The good news is the Eastern Conference standings are a logjam. The Celtics are in a three-way tie for eighth, but just two games out of the No. 2 spot.